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Opinion From the streets of Russia, protests rise to the war without a cause

Russian protesters shout "No war!" in a rally in St. Petersburg on Feb. 24. (Anatoly Maltsev/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
3 min

For a year, the streets of Russia have been relatively quiet. Protests in early 2021 in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny were met with arrests, beatings and prison sentences. But after President Vladimir Putin announced war against Ukraine this week, the streets swelled again with thousands of protesters. These courageous people, making themselves heard despite the fear and risks, demonstrated vividly that Mr. Putin faces opposition at home for what has quickly become known to be a war without a cause.

Mr. Putin draws power from cronies and clans, not the voters. It is not clear if public discontent can change his course. But the outpouring against the Ukraine war at the very outset was far larger than might have been expected. Russia’s educated urbanites were joined in protests by hundreds of journalists, entertainers, social media influencers, athletes, actors, television presenters and others. They have the potential to become a powerful force galvanizing opposition to the war.

The Kremlin fears this kind of opposition. Government censor Roskomnadzor warned the Russian news media to publish only information from official sources and threatened penalties for violators. Russian prosecutors threatened against unauthorized demonstrations, saying marchers could face “criminal charges,” including “severe punishment for organizing mass unrest.” They added ominously that a criminal record would have long-term consequences.

Nonetheless, thousands took to the streets on Thursday. In 60 Russian cities, more than 1,860 people have been detained, according to OVD-Info, a nongovernmental group that monitors political arrests. Alexei Nurullin, an activist from the Ulyanovsk region, picketed with a sign declaring, “A madman is bombing all of Ukraine.” Elena Chernenko, a prominent journalist for Kommersant, organized a protest letter from journalists and others involved in foreign policy. With about 300 signers, the letter condemned the war against Ukraine: “War has never been and will never be a method of conflict resolution and there is no justification for it.” On Friday, Ms. Chernenko was informed by the Foreign Ministry that she was expelled from the press pool, meaning she will be barred from ministry briefings and has lost her access to the minister.

A few celebrities also spoke out against the war. Ivan Urgant, who hosts a popular comedy show, wrote, “Fear and pain. NO to war.” His show was taken off the air almost immediately.

What will happen next depends in part on how Russians perceive the war, whether there are serious casualties, and whether Facebook and other social networks convey the truth from the battlefield. In the early hours, Facebook posts were filled with emotion, outrage and distress. On Friday, the government censor announced the start of an effort to slow down access to Facebook, as was done earlier with Twitter.

Still, opposition voices in Russia have a way of getting through. In an ongoing prison trial, Mr. Navalny declared, “I am against this war. I believe that this war between Russia and Ukraine is being waged to cover up the robbery of Russian citizens and to distract their attention from the problems that exist within the country from the degradation of the economy.” His will not be the last protest.

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